Standing outside in the sun in Northern California on a recent spring day, LeVar Burton is posing for photos with his daughter, Mica Burton. In this moment, it’s easy to lose sight of the now 66-year-old icon’s storied career. Because, the fact is, he’s such a natural dad. In the presence of his daughter — a 28-year-old adult — you can’t help but see a legacy that goes beyond the shows, the books, and his status as a role model for generations of kids. Burton and Mica trade jokes, talk, smiles, and banter, like the moment when Mica talks about watching SpongeBob SquarePants together growing up (“We’ve all grown up hoping we’d becoming SpongeBobs, but we’ve all turned into Squidwards,” quips Mica. “Squidward rules,” Burton retorts.).
Nearly twenty-nine years ago, in mid-1994, LeVar Burton had a very full life and an already legendary career. Burton was 37, nearly two decades away from his masterful and impactful role as Kunta Kinte in Roots, 11 years into his role as host of Reading Rainbow, the radical and popular children’s literacy program on PBS, and wrapping up the seventh and final season as the iconic Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. His son, Eian Burton, was 14, and it was in the middle of all this that LeVar Burton had his second child, his daughter Mica.
You can see in the way he listens to Mica on this day, in the eye contact, the restraint, not just the father but also the teacher in LeVar Burton. It’s a fundamental part of his identity. “My mom was an educator, my older sister, her two daughters, my nieces, my son. Education is the Burton family business,” Burton tells Fatherly. “And I consider that I’m still in the family business, although in a different branch of it, which is entertainment. But there’s a huge educational component to the storytelling that I do, that I engage in. I feel like this is part of what I was born to do.”
Education has always been a literal part of what Burton has done — at least since 1983 when Reading Rainbow aired with the goal of using a public access TV show to promote literacy and a love of books in children everywhere. Today, Burton is using the prevailing technology to help kids learn to read in a way that is different from his Reading Rainbow days on PBS. In addition to parlaying the Reading Rainbow ethos into the the app Skybrary, Burton is the chief reading officer for Osmo, a phonics-based reading program, which he believes endorses the best possible ways for children to become confidently literate. “I’m on this crusade to actually have an impact on how we properly teach children how to read,” he says. “We need to give kids what they need, which are tools they can use to crack the code, to break the words down, to decipher the diphthongs and parts of speech.” You could argue he’s been doing just this for 40 years.
But today, Burton and Mica are here together to, in a sense, honor the heroic engineer Geordi La Forge on The Next Generation from 1987 to 1994 as well as in four feature films. Burton is back as an older version of his character in the third and final season of the Paramount+ series Star Trek: Picard.
The storyline reunites him with his fellow Next Generation castmates, as the entire ’90s Trek gang engages (pun intended) on one last ride to save the galaxy. Throughout the course of the season, the crew gets back together on their version of the Starship Enterprise, which Geordi has personally restored like a classic car in an outer space garage. The person who helped him in this project? Geordi’s daughter, Alandra La Forge, played by Mica Burton. As the season unfolds, the crew quite literally has to save the next generation from a cybernetic alien threat (classic!) targeting the younger crew members.
The mood might be nostalgic, but the message is clear: Analog technology — from old starships to physical books — has real value. Also, just because parents get older, it doesn’t mean they can’t still step in to save the day. It’s a theme most dads can rally behind, made all the more poignant given so many of us are seeing our own childhood hero — the LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow to Star Trek — becoming a parent on screen. Burton helped raise us all, and now we’re still learning lessons from him.
Fatherly sat down with Burton to talk about his career, the deeper meaning of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow, his outlook on fatherhood, what he learned from Fred Rogers, and why he thinks it’s OK if all dads are “a little overprotective.”
How much did you read to Mica when she was young? Did you have a TV too, or just books?
She grew up with both. She grew up knowing that books were important. She and Steph [Burton’s wife and Mica’s mother, Stephanie Cozart-Burton] read Lemony Snicket, and she and I read Harry Potter together until the dementors, and then we had to press pause. [Laughs.] But we read to Mica before she was born, too. I read John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany in utero. Seriously.
I love that. I also love reading books to kids that aren’t always just kids’ books. I’m reading my 5-year-old The Hobbit right now. Are books still the best medium for kids?
The Hobbit! That’s what I’m talking about! But oh, God, yes. Books are absolutely the best medium. But with parenting, like life, it’s a matter of striking a balance. So, a balanced diet of media consumption makes sense. And as parents, I feel like we are sometimes not willing to stand up for the truth of what we know. We know that the brains of our children are still developing. With the amount of screen time kids have now, they’re kind of the guinea pig generation. We have no idea what the impact is going to be because we haven’t done the studies yet and they aren’t old enough yet so that we can determine the empirical results.
Deep inside we struggle with knowing that truth and the convenience of peace and quiet for the time that they are distracted by the device. And that’s the challenge of a modern parent, striking that balance. We need to have the courage of our convictions and be willing to say no to our children. That’s something that I know this generation of parents struggles with. But we need to trust our children more, that they have the sort of resilience that they will need to survive life’s disappointments, of being told, “No, you can’t have screen time now.” That’s part of good parenting.
I’m curious about the influence Fred Rogers had on your life. I know the man from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was your mentor.
And a friend. He was an elder to me. He was a mentor figure for me, but we also had a real friendship that was based on love and mutual respect. It was an eye-to-eye relationship as well as a dynamic where I was also looking up to him. I got the best… I actually think I got all of Fred. I got him on two different levels, and it was extraordinary to have him in my life at all. But to have that relationship be as dynamic as it was on both of those levels was really, really pretty special.
Is there anything you learned from him that you still take into your day-to-day? Something you got from him?
Just like the kids who grew up watching his show, I got the message from Fred that I was fine just the way I am. We used to talk about using television as a ministry, as a pulpit. I was an ex-seminarian and he was a Presbyterian minister. So, what we talked about was the need and necessity to maintain a relationship with the audience that was based on our authentic selves. More than anything else, Fred gave me permission to be myself, as a presenter for a children’s television show. And what that implies is that you have to be in touch with what your authentic self is, with who you are. He caused me to think really deeply about that, to try and respond from a place that really understood and honored that concept.
Reading Rainbow was such a radical concept: a television show designed to get you to turn off your television…
Absolutely! Counterintuitive when you think about it, but it worked. And I’m really proud of that. What it did for me was opened up an avenue of possibility. Television was simply the technology that we used back in the day to get access to the audience. And that was the power of the medium as demonstrated to me by Roots. It was the Roots experience that blew my mind at how impactful storytelling can be. In eight consecutive nights of television, this country was transformed around our common idea of what we mean when we talk about chattel slavery in America. We had a brand new context for what that meant. And that was new for America, both Black and white. So, using the prevailing technology sort of became a thing for me.
How has shifting technology changed your approach to your literacy mission?
Well, we took the Reading Rainbow brand and we reinvented what was a television show as an iPad and a tablet computer app. Television, for this generation, isn’t the first screen they go to. And that’s why I’m the chief reading officer for Osmo and am so focused on making sure we engage with kids early. One thing I did not see coming in terms of shifting my focus, at least for now, has been switching from proselytizing about a love of written storytelling, to actually making sure that our kids are learning how to read properly. It gives them the tools that they can use to crack the code, to break the words down, to decipher the diphthongs, and the parts of speech. That way they can read anything. Because none of what I do as a storyteller makes a whole lot of difference, especially in terms of the written word, if there’s no audience there to read it.
In A Kids Book About Imagination, you said, “Everywhere I go I ask the one question with two of the most powerful words in the world. ‘What if?’” So, what if you were never in Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Well, you have to take it a couple of steps back. What if I had never seen The Original Series? Because I was a huge fan of the original series — my whole family was. I was just developing a love for science fiction literature when I discovered Star Trek on TV. And Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was one that included me and people who look like me. So that’s a huge “what if?” And it’s one I don’t think I can engage in.
There’s this really touching moment in Picard this season where, as Geordi, you say to Data, “You made me a better father, a better man, and a better friend.” And it really touched me. How much have your friendships influenced your own fatherhood?
Hugely. Absolutely. I remember being on a promotional tour for one of the movies — either Generations or First Contact — and Jonathan Frakes and his wife, Genie, and me and Steph, we all had our kids in strollers, in the same make and model of strollers, as a matter of fact. So, as a father, my Star Trek family, and I have other male friends who are dads, all have been a huge influence on me in terms of my approach to fatherhood. And I’m grateful — for their guidance and for their example. Grateful for their presence in my life, especially my Star Trek family. I think we’ve all had a hand in shaping one another over the vast amount of years that we’ve known one another. And I think that’s a good thing. I think it happens in the best of cases that you influence the trajectory of not each other’s lives necessarily, but certainly, some decisions that we make along the way.
I was really interested in the idea that in Star Trek: Picard, Geordi La Forge is an overprotective dad.
I don’t know a dad who’s not overprotective. All dads are overprotective. I mean, we live in a culture and in a society where that is our primary responsibility, to protect, defend, and provide for. That’s why we’re here. I mean, that’s not all of why we’re here, but those are the roles that traditionally we are slotted into. I’m happy to have grown up and become a dad in an era where the job description of father has been expanded so successfully. I just think that it gives us more agency in the raising of our children, and that’s a good thing.
So, you didn’t want Mica to become a professional actor, right?
Because both my wife and I are in the business. And we tried to dissuade her in as many ways from becoming an actor. Subtle and obvious as we possibly could. There’s so much rejection and disappointment that’s attached to this job description that you’ve got to really have thick skin. And I don’t think any of us are born necessarily with thick skin. You have to develop a thick skin, which means you have to go through disappointment in order to bounce back from it. Again, wanting to protect our kids from things that could do them harm. I didn’t want that for my child. Show business is not designed for children. It’s just simply not.
Then Mica left home to go to college as a law major. And then auditioned without telling us in her first year for a spot in the theater school and got one. Then she told us that she was changing her major. Which we supported, of course! [Laughs.] It was very important that she come to that decision on her own, even in spite of what she knew we wanted for her. That’s how you know there’s nothing else that this human being wants to do with their lives. And on that basis, she gets our full and complete support.
How does it feel, all these years later, to be back, acting with your Next Generation found family?
Awesome. We are really throwing down. All of us. We never would’ve been able to have discovered this depth, these notes without coming back after a couple of decades and putting the spacesuits on again. We’re all older and hopefully, a little bit wiser, and we bring a lot more richness to the table as actors than we had in ’87 when this all began. I think we’re better people.
OK, so now, take me into the dad’s mind of working with your kid on the new Star Trek. She’s there, in the uniform, playing your daughter in Picard. What would it feel like to communicate with your younger self and say: “Someday my kid is going to be starring opposite of me in the same costume.”
I don’t know that my younger self would’ve had the bandwidth to really appreciate what that truly means, the depth of that experience. It still makes me emotional to think about it, because it’s deeply satisfying on so many levels as a professional actor, as a father, and as a Star Trek fan. It hits on all of those touchstones in my life. And I’m just so proud of her. Because she’s so good. But… you don’t have to take my word for it.
Photographs by Shaniqwa Jarvis
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert